- 01. The Serial Baptist Introduction
- 02. Initial Research
- 03. Nichols / Nicholson
- 04. Sanders / Sanderson
- 05. Edwards
- 06. Stivery / Twivey
- 07. Brien / O'Brien
- 08. Robinson
- 09. Jackson
- 10. Other Surnames
- 11. Gaol Records
- 12. H.M.S. Ebrus / H.M.S. Hebrus
- 13. Interactive Baptism Map
- 14. Conclusion
- Appendix A: Book Excerpt
- Appendix B: Eric Otto Winstedt
- Appendix C: Newspaper Articles
- Special Mention: Janet Keet-Black
01. The Serial Baptist Introduction
Predominantly during the 1830s, a traveling woman embarked upon a spree of serial baptisms that spanned the length and breadth of England & Wales, possibly even Scotland (although I have yet to explore this possibility). The mother baptized the child/children under various forenames, and alias surnames varied wildly.
A typical story she gave was that her child was very ill, and she was a widow, her husband having been a Portuguese sailor but recently deceased. Which details of her numerous stories that were true may never be wholly known.
As it stands (June 2023), I have compiled a list of over 620+ baptisms spanning ten years. However, only 520+ have been confirmed and are available to view on the projects interactive map, which is an ever-evolving work in progress.
So why baptize children so often and in so many different locations? It had little to do with religious beliefs and a lot to do with obtaining alms or outdoor relief. Her sad tale would have (and did) elicit sympathy and money while appearing to help her avoid the dreaded workhouse at a time overshadowed by the old poor law, and the introduction of the new poor law in 1834.
02. Initial Research
My journey started in my hometown of Crediton, in Devon, England. While researching my Romany Gypsy & Traveller Heritage Project, I stumbled across the baptism of Margaret Nicholls, daughter of Antonio & Elizabeth Nicholls, on the 11th of June 1832. Antonio was stated as a seaman from Portugal and deceased, while Elizabeth was said to be from Hull in Yorkshire.
The record piqued my interest because Crediton is some distance from the coast, a long way from Hull, and even further from Portugal.
Crediton, Devon, UK
Wanting to know more about the family and assuming (rightly or wrongly) that 'Antonio' probably wasn't a common name in England in the 1830s, I carried out a quick search online for the father, and it didn't take long to realize something was amiss, as other records also in Devon in the same year (1832), appeared;
- 8th May 1832, Exeter, Devon (St. Mary Major) Margaret Nickols, daughter of Eliza & Antonio (Sailor living in Coombe Street), baptized
- 11th May 1832, Exeter, Devon (St. Sidwell) Margaret Nicholls, daughter of Elizabeth & Antonio (Travellers, Mariner), baptized
- 19th June 1832, Chudleigh, Devon Elizabeth Nickles, daughter of Elizabeth & Antonio (Soldier), baptized
- 24th June 1832, Honiton, Devon Charlotte Nichols, daughter of Margaret & Antonio (a Sailor from Penzance in Cornwall), baptized
As you can see, these baptisms all took place relatively close together date-wise, and if you check the locations on a map, there are only a few miles between them, but there were three different forenames for the child. At first, I wondered if the two baptisms in Exeter a couple of days apart were a mistake until I realized they took place at two different Churches.
Continuing my search, I discovered four further baptism records that fit between those listed above date-wise and which now crossed the county border from Devon into Cornwall. Three of these baptisms seemingly took place on the same day;
- 3rd June 1832, Launceston, Cornwall Elizabeth & Anthony Nicol (A soldier)
- 4th June 1832, Lawhitton, Cornwall Elizabeth & Antonio Nicol (Father a sailor from Lisbon in Portugal)
- 4th June 1832, Milton Abbot, Devon Elizabeth & Antonio Nicholls (Father a Portuguese)
- 4th June 1832, Tavistock, Devon Elizabeth & Antonio Nichol (A Portugese Sojourner, a Mariner). See Appendix A for a story directly related to this record, in all but the child's name, although the author may have fantasized this somewhat for publication purposes.
Launceston, Lawhitton, Milton Abbot & Tavistock
Again, attributed to parents Antonio & Elizabeth were another three baptisms, with the fourth being Anthony & Elizabeth. While I cannot be 100% certain the baptism on 3rd June is the same family unit, the father's name, "Anthony," is the anglicized equivalent of Antonio. As the baptism took place the day before the others and a very short distance away, it seems more than just a coincidence. With the list of records now growing fast, this led me to believe this wasn't your average traveling family.
03. Nichols / Nicholson
Having established the family commonly using the Nichols surname, I compiled quite a long list of baptism records all over England & Wales, mainly between 1830-1837. I could track them every day / every few days / every week from village-to-village or town-to-town. The details written in official baptism registers all tended to tell similar stories; the husband either being Portugese/a Sailor/a Mariner/a Soldier and being at Sea, or dead/recently deceased, or the baptized child was very ill.
The few things that I quickly discovered that did differ were the variations of the Nichols surname recorded (Nichol, Nicholas, Nicol, Nicholson, etc.) and the fact the parent's forenames changed as well. Aside from Antonio & Elizabeth, it was common to find them using the names James & Sophia, the mother using the forename Margaret, or a mix of these names under the Nichols surname.
The name of the baptized child also differed on occasion; Usually, it was Mary, but names also given were Elizabeth, Margaret, Charlotte, Caroline & Sophia.
Gypsiologist Eric Otto Winstedt seemed suitably impressed with Antonio Nichols and his family, to mention them in a Gypsy Lore Society article in 1922 (see Appendix B), believing them to be related to a traveling family in Oxfordshire. Nearly 100 years later and with far greater & more accessible access to records than he ever had, I do not share the same opinion.
04. Sanders / Sanderson
Another surname that popped up early on when looking for 'Antonio' was Sanders / Sanderson and related variant spellings.
Found on the 2nd March 1834 (one example of many), in Norwich, Norfolk, parents Antonio & Eliza Sanders baptized Mary Sanders in the city's St. Margaret Church. Listed as "Travellers," the father was said to be "Portuguese." I highlight this record specifically because the family appears to have visited two of the city's other churches on the same day, using different names to avoid detection possibly. An Antonio & Elizabeth Nichols baptized daughter Mary Nichols at St. John the Theologian's church, and an Anthony & Eliza Nicholls baptized daughter Margaret Nicholls at the All Saints church.
St. Margaret's, All Saints & St. John's Churches - Norwich, Norfolk, UK
Finding clusters of records regarding the family using different names around the local area or nearby tie the baptisms together and help rule out the chance the family names may be purely coincidental. It also helps that newspapers of the period specifically mention the mother using both Sanders & Nicholls (See Appendix C).
Found after the initial use of Nichols, it's interesting to note that when giving the Sanders surname, the father in baptism registers is usually listed as Nichols Sanders/Sanderson, combining the two commonly used surnames into one name.
One example is the following, recorded on 14th November 1833 in Pawlett, Somerset. Mary Saunders, daughter of Nichol & Elizabeth Saunders, said to be from "Bellam (SIC), Portugal," was baptized, the father a "Sailor in the Hebrus," and a margin note that stated the officiating minister believed the mother to be an imposter.
Recorded on the 27th December 1833, in Stapleton, Bristol, another example is when parents Nichol & Elizabeth Saunderson, itinerants, the father formally in the Royal Navy, baptize daughter Margaret Saunderson.
My first discovery of the family using the Edwards surname came from the baptism of Mary Nicholson, which took place on the 23rd May 1836, in Monmouth, Monmouthshire (Wales), to parents Antonio & Mary Nicholson. The father, Antonio, was stated to have been a sailor in the British service, supposedly dying earlier that year on 21st March. On the original register entry at the foot of the page was a note that read;
N.B. This child was taken on the same pretense to several parishes, and baptized at Newlands by the name of Edwards.
Sure enough, on the following day (24th May 1836), just across the border in Newland, Gloucestershire, can be found the baptism of a Mary Edwards, this time to parents Nicholas & Mary Edwards. Traveling to Greenwich, London, the father is listed as a brazier. In the margin, there is also a note that appears to have been entered at a later date, in different handwriting, that reads;
This child was baptized the day before at Monmouth. The mother attesting it to be attacked with fits & flux, as she did here.
Having discovered the use of Edwards as an alias surname, I could go back through the previous record finds and fill in several gaps between other baptisms. It appears they used the Edwards surname sporadically between 1831 and 1836.
06. Stivery / Twivey
As my research currently stands, this (or a variant) is the initially recorded surname for the family and, as such, may indicate it to be their actual surname. It appeared to crop up in 1827, was used often up to 1831, then very rarely after that when they seemed to switch to Nicholls and other surnames.
The discovery of this surname came about due to the following record, after which I started looking for documents relating to twin children:-
On the 15th of August 1833, in Wadhurst, Sussex, Mary Nicholl was baptized to parents Antonio & Elizabeth Nicholls, the father a Mariner, and their abode unknown. "Twin" was written in tiny writing under the child's name.
Expanding my searches to include the term 'twin' threw up several records relating to twin daughters, usually children of a James (or sometimes Samuel) & Sophia Stivery/Twivey. The problem with the initial records I came across was that while I had a hunch they may be the same family, the recorded details could have been more specific and conclusive.
Take the following example; On the 5th November 1830, in Fittleworth, Sussex, and the baptism of Margaret & Mary Twyvie, to parents James & Sophia Twyvie, the mother was listed as a 'Travelling widow,' and the children as 'Twins.' On 16th September 1830 in Hungarton, Leicestershire, a more convincing record is found. Again we discover Margaret & Mary, this time baptized to parents James & Sophia Stivery. However, this time the father was a 'Portuguese Labourer,' and they were 'Travelling to Uppingham.' A note at the foot of the page convinced me they were the same family. It read;
Induced to name these twins on account of the perilousness of one of them. The woman represented the children as five months old - herself a widow three weeks and in great distress.
At this point, a new record discovery - this time relating to the original Nichols/Nicholson surname I found them using, coupled with a search for twins - appeared to confirm my suspicions.
On the 1st March 1830, in the City of York (Micklegate), the baptism of twin girls Charlotte & Sophia was recorded to parents James & Sophia Nicholson. The mother was traveling to Nottingham, and the father was a Portuguese on the H.M.S. Hebrus; the vicar wrote in the register that the father had died four months previously. The importance of this record was in a side note written in the margin, which read;
I suspect this woman to be the Sophia Twivy of No.450 - She denies this imposture.
The 'No.450' relates to a baptism recorded a year earlier in the same baptism register, James Twivy/Twevy's baptism to parents Samuel & Sophia Twevy, on the 28th Feb 1829. On that occasion, the record states the mother traveled to Glasgow in Scotland, but again, the father was deceased and a former seaman on the H.M.S. Hebrus.
07. Brien / O'Brien
Brien, O'Brien, or variations on the surname, were names I came across while continuing my search for twins, coupled with various parent name combinations and tracking the existing travel route I'd by now started to build up comprehensively. Two days after the previously mentioned record above (Charlotte & Sophia Nicholson, baptized on the 1st March 1830, in the City of York), on the 3rd March 1830, in Skipwith, Yorkshire, I discovered the baptism of Charlotte & Caroline O'Bryan. Recorded as "Twin Daughters" of parents James & Sophia O'Bryan, the father was a "Brazier on Travel," or so the record states.
A couple of weeks later, on the 25th March 1830, in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, we find Charlotte & Catherine Brien "Twin Daughters," baptized to parents James & Sophia Brien ("Travellers"). The following day on the 26th March 1830, in Silk Willoughby, Lincolnshire, we again find Charlotte & Catherine being baptized to parents James & Sophia ("Pauper traveling on the road"); this time, the surname Bryant is recorded.
The families use of this surname is mainly limited to 1830, but I have recorded it used at least once later; On the 29th December 1837, in Longbridge Deverill, Wiltshire, a Mary Brien can be found baptized to parents James & Mary Brien. The register records the father as being Portuguese, the child six months old, and that it was a private baptism. A private baptism usually indicates that either the child was ill or the family was not local to the Parish/Travellers. While I may have initially questioned this baptism being them, as I found it to be surrounded date & location-wise by baptisms of the child under the already established Sanderson surname, I am convinced this is them.
Robinson was another surname - like Brien - that I came across in my search for the baptisms of twin children to the family. My first discovery of them using this surname came from a Brien record, as on the 2nd February 1830, in Manfield, Yorkshire, a Charlotte Briant was baptized to parents James Briant & Sophia Robinson. The baptism register only mentions only one child, and little was recorded about the family besides the mother being from York, but Charlotte was crucially recorded as a twin. Expanding my search to now look for the Robinson surname, several more popped up in 1830, a couple of note being;
- 10th September 1830, Breadsall, Derbyshire Margaret & Mary Robinson, twin daughters of Mary Robinson, a traveler (private baptism)
- 10th September 1830, Derby, Derbyshire Margaret & Mary Robinson, twin daughters of James & Sophia Robinson, Itinerant Labourers (note the baptism took place the same day as the baptism above, and only two miles further down the road)
- 20th September 1830, Gretton, Northamptonshire Mary & Elizabeth Robinson, no mention of them being twins, but daughters of Mary Robinson, a sojourner & widow
Again, by themselves, it's perfectly feasible to miss the connection and see them as a different family. Yet, looking at the broader picture I'd already built up, with locations and dates of baptisms under other surnames, these baptisms interspersed Stivery and Brien baptisms in 1830 and fit perfectly with them being the same family. At the time of writing, I have only ever found them using the Robinson surname once outside of 1830, in 1837;
- 5th March 1837, March, Cambridgeshire Mary Sanderson, daughter of Nicholls Sanderson & Mary Robinson, traveling through March, the father dead.
This record is vital because it ties together three surnames (Sanderson, Nicholls & Robinson), lists them as travelers, and mentions the father as deceased. Records such as this added weight to my belief these are all the same family and helped to rule out chance or coincidence.
I discovered the Jackson surname late after filling 1830 - 1836 every few days with baptisms for the family under the already mentioned surnames above. While I found several records in 1837, they seemed very sporadic. It was also unusual to see the family using nearly all the previous forenames/surnames because, up until now, they had tended to only swap between one or two in a year. 1837 appears to have been different for whatever reason; perhaps it was harder for the family with the new poor law coming onstream and changing how the Church handed out charity. It may have affected Churches in some areas no longer offering handouts, and thus it was pointless even attempting the sick child/recently deceased husband baptism scam.
While searching records for "Portugal/Portuguese" references in 1837, parents Edmund & Mary Jackson (vagrants from Portugal) baptized Mary Jackson in Weldon, Northamptonshire, on the 6th May 1837. Expanding my search to include the Jackson surname, I quickly came across a few other baptisms in the days following and located close to one another;
- 9th May 1837, Barrow upon Soar, Leicestershire (Holy Trinity) Margaret Jackson, daughter of Elizabeth & James (From Leith in Scotland, Sailor), baptized
- 11th May 1837, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire (St. Ncholas) Margaret Jackson, daughter of Mary & John (Tramper), baptized
- 15th May 1837, Bottesford, Leicestershire (St. Mary the Virgin) Margaret Jackson, daughter of Margaret & Edmund (Travellers)
- 15th May 1837, Whatton, Nottinghamshire (St. John of Beverley) Mary Jackson, daughter of Margaret & John (Of St. Nicholas, London, Mother a Widow and Vagrant)
Several common themes ran through these records compared to previous discoveries, i.e., Portuguese, Travellers/Trampers, Sailor, Mother a Widow, etc. Intermixed with already established Nicholson & Sanderson baptisms, it convinced me the Jacksons were again a variant name of the same family unit.
10. Other Surnames
In the process of my research, there have been a few other surnames that have cropped up, but I cannot confirm for sure they are the family, yet they may well be. Take the seemingly one-off baptism of Charlotte Coward on 26th June 1832 in Witchampton, Dorset. Recorded as James & Charlotte Coward, the parents are "vagrants going about the country," and they were said to be "of the Parish of Mere (Wiltshire)."
Two days prior, on 24th June 1832, Charlotte Nichols was baptized in Honiton, Devon, which is a distance of around 60 miles, which a person could cover in approximately 20 hours on foot, or 6-8 hours by horse. While I thought this record might be a stretch, less than a week later, on 5th July 1832, an already confirmed record relating to the baptism of Margaret Nichols to mother Elizabeth Nichols, "a Widow and an itinerant," can be found in Mere, Wiltshire. Mere is the same place mentioned in Charlotte Cowards' baptism on 26th June.
Is this a coincidence? Until further evidence comes to light, it isn't easy to tell.
Another surname that crops up only once (that I have so far discovered) is Wilkinson. On the 31st May 1830, in Stamford, Lincolnshire, twin girls Charlotte & Caroline Stivery were baptized to parents Samuel & Mary Ann Stivery. A note on the original baptism register is quite detailed and reads;
On Monday May 31st 1830 Mary Ann Stivery, wife of Samuel Stivery, a Portuguese in his Majestys service, called to the minister of All Saints to request that her twin children (girls) where of one was very ill, might be baptized, which under the circumstances of the care was not refused. The children were accordingly baptized, the 31st May 1830, under the names Charlotte and Caroline. The woman was passing through Stamford and stated herself to be a native of Hull, her maiden name Wilkinson, her age 32. The children were born January 1st 1830 at Odsworth (so she called it) between Morpeth and Newcastle in Northumberland.
A further note underneath reads;
The person passed through Stamford in 1837 and was identified by me - it appears that her practice is to call upon the clergy wherever she goes to baptise a child or children whom she may have with her as a means of obtaining money.
I should note I did not yet find a record in Stamford in 1837, so either the mother used an alternative name I have yet to discover or the clergyman, once identifying her in 1837, refused to baptize the child, believing her to be an imposter and sent her away. Thus it might explain why there is no mention of her in the baptism register.
11. Gaol Records
Throughout the research process to locate this family, I have searched for them in all media accessible to me. Baptism records, overseer of the poor records, newspaper articles (See Appendix C), book excerpts (See Appendix A), and in this case, criminal records. Before I get into the criminal records I have found, I must add the caveat that I cannot for sure say any of these records are 100% the same family, just that they are of interest or I believe them to be.
While the family doesn't appear in any baptism register I can currently find before 1828, on Monday the 8th of October 1827, the Hampshire Chronicle wrote;
At Stockbridge Petty Sessions, on Thursday, a most notorious vagrant, Samuel Stevery, who has long frequented the neighbourhood, was, with his wife and family, committed to the House of Correction for 20 days. This punishment, it is hoped, will operate as a caution to the numerous vagrants who infest this country, and subsist by depredations and impositions on the public.
Another record, only a month later and the next county over from Hampshire, in Dorset, relates to a Sophi Twyvey, who was a prisoner in custody, in Dorchester, Dorset, on the 15th November 1827. She said she was 34 years old, married, and gave her home Parish as St. Thomas, Exeter, in Devon. Her crime was breaking windows, for which she received 14 days imprisonment; on 28th November, she was discharged.
One year later, on 4th November 1828, Samuel Twivy, aged 40, can be found in Wilton Gaol (Somerset, UK). He was convicted and sentenced to three calendar months imprisonment for being a rogue and a vagabond. Of interest on the Gaol record is the fact he was from "Belham," or so it is written, and his last place of residence, "Watchett" (Somerset). His occupation was a "Tinker." His recorded description is also of interest as his complexion, eyes & hair are "dark," and even further interest is the fact that he had an "anchor on the left hand in ink," a common sailor tattoo.
"Belham" was a probable misspelling of "Belem" (in Portugal), a place the father is said to be from in several baptism records. His last recorded residence of Watchett is noteworthy, as on the 9th November 1828 (5 days after the above Gaol record) in Taunton, Somerset, a James Twivey was baptized to parents Sophia & James (note, not Samuel) Twivey. The father's occupation was said to be a "Seaman," and the abode was "Watchet." In reality, in October of that year, they had been traveling around Devon and, in November, had moved into Somerset, where the mother continued to travel after her husband's apparent imprisonment.
Letters that relate to the above case are housed at the National Archives and mention Samuel's bad temperament and, most notably, the fact he had been falsely representing his wife to be in a dangerous fever in an attempt to obtain aid from the overseer of the poor. It is something the family would appear to go on later to say regarding their children in attempts to get money from the Church.
The family disappeared off the radar entirely in December 1828, only to reappear much further north in Staffordshire in January 1829. Whether the father was still serving his three-month prison sentence in Wilton Goal at this point is unclear.
In the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, on Thursday the 4th August 1831, there is mention of "John Smith, otherwise, Samuel Twevey" being committed to the house of correction in Devizes for "six weeks, for obtaining money under false pretenses at Potterne (Wiltshire)."
On the 19th September 1831, Samuel Twevy was in Gaol in Dorset charged with assault, imprisoned for two calendar months, and recorded as a 40-year-old married Tinker from Belem in Portugal. The record provides a detailed description. He was 5" 8¼, with brown eyes, a broad nose, "swarthy" complexion, and was "slightly marked in the face with large pockmarks (smallpox)." This record also notes "the mark of an anchor with gunpowder on the back of the left thumb" and "the nail of the little finger right hand injured."
In the Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser, on Saturday the 19th April 1834, mention is made of the mother taking her child to various clergy members attempting to obtain charity. The article explicitly lists her using the names Mary Saunders & Elizabeth Nicholl. It also states she was apprehended and examined before the Mayor, to whom she told that she was from Belem, near Lisbon (Portugal), and that she was the widow of Antonio Nicholls of the ship Hebrus, commanded by Capt. Palmer. The article also mentions she was remanded into custody, and I hope to acquire the original record to learn further information.
On the 4th June 1836, in Trevethin, Monmouthshire, Samuel Twevy was convicted of being a rogue & vagabond and sentenced to one month of hard labor. If he carried out his entire month sentence, not long after his release, it would appear he got in far greater trouble, as on the 12th July 1836, Samuel Tweevy (aged 50) was sentenced to death for maiming, cutting & stabbing. On Saturday 15th October 1836, The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Glamorgan, Monmouth, and Brecon Gazette, noted that on the 23rd September, Samuel Twevy was removed from Cardiff Gaol, and put on board the Justitia hulk at Woolwich (London) before being sent out of the country. Whether transported out of the country or not, I have yet to find out.
Justitia Hulk, Woolwich, London
12. H.M.S. Ebrus / H.M.S. Hebrus
While seen as an aside and a possible red herring, it's worth mentioning purely because occasionally, the father in the baptism registers is recorded as a sailor on either the HMS Ebrus or HMS Hebrus, important Royal Navy vessels in their own right. However, I suspect the mother's accent, combined with the similar-sounding vessel names, may have confused matters in the baptism registers.
The HMS Ebrus was a bomb vessel constructed by the Royal Navy in Pembroke, Wales, in 1826. It spent some years in service around the Mediterranean before joining HMS Terror for the Ross Expedition to the Antarctic between 1839-1843. Both vessels would later be lost on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition to the Arctic in 1845.
The HMS Hebrus, on the other hand, was newly built around 1814, and with the war of the sixth coalition coming to an end, the vessel joined the blockade of the French Channel ports, recently commanded by Captain Edmund Palmer. On the 27th March 1814, the Hebrus is perhaps most well known for being part of the last frigate ship-to-ship battle of the Napoleonic Wars, when it chased down, cornered & defeated the French frigate Etoile - which was making for Saint Malo - in a fierce battle. The following year Palmer and the Hebrus were again active, this time during the Hundred Days War, and in 1816 they were with the fleet which conducted the Bombardment of Algiers. After the campaign, on inspection, it was discovered that Hebrus was suffering badly from rot, and the ship was broken up.
A couple of records that may help clarify the ship the mother gave in numerous baptism records are as follows;
On the 4th November 1832, in Haughton-le-Skerne, County Durham, Mary Nichol was baptized to parents Antonio & Elizabeth Nichol. Antonio's abode is recorded as being in the "Portuguese Navy," and he is also recorded as
The late Antonio Nichol of the ship Ebrus. Capt. Palmer
Then two years later, on 3rd November 1834, in Ilmington, Warwickshire, Mary Edwards was baptized to parents James & Mary Edwards (Strolling Beggars). A side note reads;
Mary Edwards husband was a sailor on board the Eberous commanded by Capt Palmer
So, I believe the mother meant her husband was a sailor on the HMS Hebrus (not the HMS Ebrus), which Captain Palmer commanded. Whether he was or if this was another fabrication of the truth intended to elicit sympathy is an entirely different matter. The father did appear to have an anchor tattoo (see the Gaol Records section above) commonly associated with sailors, and some of the family travel routes followed the coast, so the father may have been a sailor. Although not on such a well-known & respected vessel of the period in the HMS Hebrus.
13. Interactive Baptism Map
Writing about a subject is one thing, but being able to visualize that subject, especially a complicated one, can make it easier to comprehend. That is why I decided to plot the numerous baptism records I found on a map early on.
The Open Route Service dynamically generates the traveling routes for different years. While they follow modern, not historical, roadways, this is acceptable as many modern roads between towns and villages have evolved out of existing roads over the years (ignoring motorways and some major A & B roads).
While these generated routes help visualize the traveling patterns, they are not definitive and may need to be corrected where there are considerable time/distance gaps between baptism records. The routes should update over time as more records are found and added to fill in the gaps. Where significant gaps exist, the generated travel route has made me focus my research on particular locations and helped me discover new records in towns or villages on numerous occasions. It is an invaluable research tool.
You can view the map by clicking on the image below, this link to the interactive map, or the link in the sidebar.
I've been researching this family for a long time, and I put off writing anything about them purely because I have only half a story; It needs a beginning and an end; therefore, it's hard for me to draw many conclusions. I would love to discover where either parent was born, their real names, why they did what they did (apart from monetary gain, if indeed there was any other reason) and what became of them.
Many unanswered questions and small details warrant further investigation, such as a few records that suggest the mother was Irish or a single document that mentions her having thirteen children.
As it stands, the family appeared around 1827 and disappeared around 1838, and I have effectively managed to connect the dots to draw a picture of around ten years of their lives and present it to you here. I've listed the names I've found and attempted to explain what I believe are the connections between these names & records. There is so much more to this story. The research doesn't end here, and one day I'll answer some of the questions I have, or perhaps in sharing this with you, someone reading this will.
Appendix A: Book Excerpt
It was quite by chance and through my links to the Romany & Traveller Family History Society, that I read in their quarterly journal 'Romany Routes', that this family was mentioned in a book written by Anna Eliza Bray, wife of Edward Atkyns Bray, who became the vicar of St. Eustachius' Church in Tavistock, in 1811.
The book was titled - take a deep breath - 'Traditions, Legends, Superstitions, and Sketches of Devonshire on the boarders of the Tamar and the Tavy, Illustrative of its manners, customs, history, antiquities, scenery, and natural history, in a series of letters to Robert Southey Esq.' - published by J. Murray, London, in 1838 - an online copy of which can be read by clicking here. In the book, Mrs Bray writes;
My next story relates to ourselves.
On a summer evening, last year, we were at tea, when one of our servants came in and said, "that a very poor woman, who was in great trouble, had brought a child to be baptized directly; for the infant was so bad with fits that the poor woman was afraid it would die before it could be made a christian."
Up jumped Mr. Bray - "Get a basin of water - where's the prayer book?"
"I will go too," said I, "and see the child; perhaps a little Dalby's Carminative, or something, may do it good" - and away we both went into the hall.
There stood a woman dressed in a large, old, grey cloak, like that of a horse-soldier. An old black bonnet was stuck on one side on her head, beneath which strayed a quantity of long hair, that seemed as if it had never felt a comb. She had a face that was as full and as red as the rising moon; and her eyes, that looked at you out of their corners, had in them the sly expression of low cunning. A rich Irish brogue was as good as any certificate to tell the land of her birth. She made us a curtsey, as she stood crying and talking Irish all in a breath; and under the large cloak she seemed to be alternately cuddling and shaking a bundle, which she said was a child, but the tip of whose nose even could not be seen, and I feared it would be smothered for want of air.
"Is the child very ill?" said I, "It does not cry."
"All the worse for that, my leddy; I'd be having some hope of her, if I could but hear her squeal. But it's no strength she has to cry; and them fits just killing her for forty-eight hours long, and no keeping 'em down - and I starving - starving! not a morsel of bread, your honour, have I had in my lips since yesterday the morn." - Here she began to cry most bitterly.
"Have you been to the overseer?" said Mr. Bray, "If you are so distressed, he is obliged to give you immediate relief and a night's lodging."
"And is it the overseer, your honour's speaking of? I've been at his door morn and eve, and he's away, and far out, and they tells me he'll not be back till twelve o'clock the night, and that's a dark hour for asking help, and I with the sick babby; and nothing left to sell, or to give to get a lodging, or a crust to keep life and sowl together, and as naked, all but my auld cloak, as a new-born babe. Only see, your honour, and satisft yourself." - And so saying, she rather unceremoniously threw back part of her cloak (but still kept the child muffled up) and by so doing, obliged Mr. Bray to look another way, for, truth to speak, she was not over-burthened with clothes. He put his hand into his pocket and gave her a piece of silver.
"And is it a shilling? may God bless your honour, for copper's the best charity I ever had afore. And now we'll christen the child; and then the leddy there will be giving me an auld garment, that I may go away like a christian mudder from the door."
"What is the child's name to be?" inquired Mr. Bray, opening the book.
"Antonio, your honour."
"Antonio!" said I, "I thought you told us just now the child was a girl."
"Very like, my leddy, for I didn't know what I was saying by raison of my head being turned with they fits - but a boy it is forsure; and his fader's a Portugee and a sogier; and he's away, over the water, and I and the babby left behind - Hush, hush, hush, my dear little darling."
"The child is not crying," said I, "it seems remarkably quiet."
"I do it to make him still while the minister's over the book, my leddy; for he'll squeal by and by, when the fits take him, with the sprinkle of the water - and may be you'll hear such a squealing as you never heard afore; for sometimes he's all black in the face along wid the disease. But there'll be comfort in seeing him a christian before he goes away dead."
Mr. Bray commenced the service, the mother still shaking the child, and keeping it closely muffled up in the "auld cloak;" but when it came to that part of the ceremony that the infant must be uncovered to receive the sprinkling - out she brought, in a moment, a fine bouncing child, as rosy as a rose, that could not have been very far from two years old at least, with stout limbs and firm flesh; and the little fellow looked up the very picture of health, smiling and well pleased to undergo the rite of baptism, - a ceremony to which, no doubt, he was pretty well accustomed. That was concluded; and fully convinced that the woman was a cheat, we speedily got rid of her, and though she made a resolute attempt, no "auld garment" did she get from me to pawn at the next town.
A day or two afterwards, we happened to dine at the house of a neighbouring clergyman. There we found that little Antonio had also been baptized in his fits; and it was very confidently believed he had been carried round the country to as many of the clergy as were likely to be cheated into any sort of compassionate donation.
Appendix B: Eric Otto Winstedt
The following is an excerpt taken from "Notes on English Gypsy Christian Names" - Eric Otto Winstedt (Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 3rd ser.,v.1 (1922), Page 84);
More might be said for a survival of Romance names than for Greeknames: but even in their case the evidence is slight and not very convincing. Antonio, given by the Hearns as an alias for Isaac Heron to some reporter after his death, and suggested by the form Vantino in the case of a Smith already mentioned, may be dismissed as a foreign form current in England like Ferdinando, which occurs on Camden's list and fairly frequently in registers of the sixteenth and seventeenth century.
The claim to Portuguese blood put forward by another traveller named Antonio in the following baptismal entry in the registers of Merton, Oxon: 'Margaret daughter of Elizabeth and Antonio Nicholson. The Mother a Wanderer. The Father drowned about four months ago. He was a Portuguese and she born in Portugal of English parents. Seafaring man,' can hardly be taken seriously.
Certainly he had been faring more upon the roads than upon the sea for some years, as 'Mary d. of Antonio and Margaret Nicol Vagrant' was baptized at Sturminster Marshall, Oct. 24, 1833: 'Margaret Daughter of Antonio and Elizabeth Nichols, Traveller, Labour,' at Enstone, Nov. 7, 1834: and 'Mary, Daughter of Antonio and Elizabeth Nicholson, Travelling Woman, Husband drowned' at Glympton, July 18, 1836.
Fairly obviously he belonged to a travelling family which appears very frequently in Oxfordshire registers and varies its name - as the survivors still do - in a bewildering manner between Nicholl, Nichols, and Nicholson: and presumably the widow found it more profitable to account for her own and her children's darkness by claiming foreign blood than by admitting a Gypsy strain. The entries rather suggest that she was Gypsy enough to make a trade of having the same child baptized more than once.
The Latin form of this name Antonius is also un use among Gypsies in the form Andanaias.
Appendix C: Newspaper Articles
On Thursday the 22nd of March 1832, the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette wrote;
New way of raising the wind. A few days since a woman without a particle of clothing except a cloak, and carrying a child in her arms totally naked, called upon the Rev. Mr. Lucas, our highly esteemed Curate, and, after relating the miseries she had endured, and the deplorable state to which she was reduced, expressed her hope, that as the infant she held was at the point of death, there would be no objection to it's being privately baptized. The womans story, and her appearance, naturally excited the best feelings of the Rev. Gent : he readily baptized the infant, and as generously relieved the mother. The woman then called upon other gentlemen in Devizes, and, making use of the Rev. Mr. Lucas name, obtained various sums of money; every farthing of which she spent in a public-house, and was afterwards seen lying in the road, in a most disgusting state of intoxication. Upon her recovery, she walked to Poulshot, played a similar tune upon the feelings of the benevolent vicar of that parish; had her child, we understand, again baptized; and was clothed, fed, and money was given her. As we have no doubt she is still practising the same game, we trust, that what we have stated will operate as a caution.
On Saturday the 5th of October 1833, the Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette wrote;
A woman is travelling in East Kent, and extorting money from the clergy in the following novel manner: Her plan is to call upon some clergyman and request him to baptize her child, whom she represents to be dangerously ill. Upon him complying with her request she seizes the opportunity of representing her destitute condition, and generally succeeds in obtaining pecuniary assistance from him. This imposition she practised with success on three clergymen in the neighbourhood of Deal on a day last week. She professes to be travelling from Hastings (where she says that she lately buried a child) to Yarmouth. Sometimes she represents herself to be the widow of Antonio Nichol, a Portuguese, who died six weeks ago.
On Saturday the 19th of April 1834, the Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser wrote;
Caution - A woman, with three children, has lately been extorting alms in this neighbourhood in a most novel manner. Her pretence is that her youngest child is extremely ill, and in consequence requires the rite of Baptism, which she demands from the Clergymen of each parish through which she passes, taking the opportunity, at the same time, of soliciting charity. At Brackley she passed under the name of Mary Saunders, and at Boddicott she assumed the name of Elizabeth Nicholl to the Rev. Mr. Nelson, who performed the rite of Baptism over the child, and gave the woman some refreshment. The same day she applied to the Rev. Mr. Parsons, who is at present officiating here for the Rev. Mr. Rushton, and the Rev. gentleman was induced also to perform the rite over the child, and to give relief to the woman. She subsequently made application for relief to Mr. Taylor, the superintendant of the Mendicity Society, to whom she told a fresh tale. This morning (Thursday) she was apprehended and examined before the Mayor, to whom she stated that she was born at Belem, near Lisbon, and was the widow of Antonio Nicholls, of the ship Hebrus, Capt Palmer. She was remanded, to give an opportunity of procuring the attendance of the Rev. Gentlemen upon whom she had imposed.
On Saturday the 15th of November 1834, the Oxford Journal wrote;
On the evening of Friday the 7th inst. a female, with a child in her arms, called on the Rector, in Witney, stating her child to be dangerously ill, and requesting that it might be baptized. The Rector, from a sense of duty, performed the sacred rite, though he was strongly impressed with the idea that the woman was an imposter. When she unfolded her cloak, the child was found to be quite naked; and the woman was in the most tattered state imaginable. The benevolent feelings of the Rector overcame his scruples; he gave her some pecuniary assistance, and Mrs. Jerram supplied her with some flannel. On mentioning the circumstance afterwards to his Curate, the Rev. Mr. Carr, the Rector found out that the woman had likewise called on him the same afternoon and had the child baptized : he also had relived her by giving her linen. This imposter was dressed in an old drab-coloured cloak, with a little dirty straw bonnet.
On Thursday the 27th of November 1834, the Worcester Journal wrote;
We would caution the public against the impositions of a travelling woman, with three children, one at the breast, whose practice is to apply to the clergyman of each parish she passes through to baptize her child, on the plea of its being very ill, and on this pretence seeking charitable relief. We have heard of four clergymen who have baptized the same child within as many days. The woman calls herself Nicholls or Saunders.
On Friday the 23rd of December 1836, the Durham County Advertiser wrote;
Caution to Clergymen. An impostor is now endeavouring to obtain access to different Clergymen in this City, under pretence of wishing her child to be baptized for the purpose, it is supposed, of extorting money, by the appearance of destitution and poverty. The falsehood of her story was detected, in one instance, by the following circumstance :- Calling on the Clergyman of the parish through which she was then passing for the above object, her application was refused, from the suspicion of the statement which she gave. She immediately proceeded to another Clergyman residing in the parish with a similar request, stating that the regular minister was from home, and would not be at home until late in the evening, and that the case was urgent. This was soon ascertained to be a falsehood, and the woman was accordingly dismissed. This statement is, therefore, inserted to put other Clergymen on their guard, and that the public in general may be cautioned against listening to the tales of impostors.
On Saturday the 17th of February 1838, the Reading Mercury wrote;
An Impostor - For some days past a woman, having a child at her breast, has been imposing upon the clergymen of Windsor and Eton, in the following mannar:- She has called at the different houses of those gentlemen, and represented the child to be in a dying state, at the same time with a doleful tale of distress, expressing her anxiety to have it half-baptized, which in several instances was very kindly performed, and accompanied with a trifling present. One of these gentlemen, and the gentlemen who discovered the impostion, was the Rev. Mr. Harper, of Willowbrook, who shortly after having performed the ceremony, and assisted the woman, had occasion to call upon a friend at collage, at whose door he found her waiting for the same purpose; he allowed her to walk in, but upon taking off his hat she recognized him, and without waiting to try the effect of her application, she clapped the child under her shawl and bolted, before the Reverend gentleman had an opportunity of giving her into custody. We hope the publicity we have now given the affair, will be the means of preventing her successfully practising the system elsewhere.
Special Mention: Janet Keet-Black
This research, article, interactive map & website came out of work I had been carrying out on another project to do with recording Romany Gypsy & Traveller records in the UK between the years 1500-1900 (view the project here). Separate from that work, I am also a member of the Romany & Traveller Family History Society here in the UK. One of the benefits of being a member is receiving a journal (titled "Romany Routes") every three months with other members' stories, articles and research included.
Back in September 2019, in Vol 14 No 4 of Romany Routes, there happened to be an article written by Janet Keet-Black - a founding member of the society - where she wrote about the same family you find on the pages of this website. It was a pleasant surprise to learn someone else had discovered the family and had been researching them, but it was also annoying. Only a couple of months previously, I had first met and spoken with Janet in person at an RTFHS open day in Dorset when that day she gave a talk regarding a Gypsy school in Hampshire. I had yet to mention my serial baptism research to her then, and I didn't learn of her research on the same subject.
As soon as I read the article in Romany Roots, I contacted Janet via email, shared the research I had gathered, and provided her with some other unknown surnames. I also wrote an "official" response to Janet's article, published in the follow-up edition of Romany Routes in December 2019 (Vol 14 No 5). The intent was to share new information and provide a website link for those interested in my work.
With the Internet and the increasing number of online records, my job hunting down records has been much easier than it ever was for Janet when she first discovered the family over 25 years ago. Then, if you wanted to see a record, you had to visit the record office physically, whether just down the road or 100 miles away. Individuals like Janet paved the way for the work people like myself carry on today, and as such, I wanted to give her a special mention here.